Stephen Oola, human rights lawyer
Many Ugandans disapprove of the prosecution of rebel leader Dominic Ongwen by the ICC. Thursday he will hear his sentence.
Dominic was an obedient boy when he was abducted in 1988 in Northern Uganda by the LRA and was forced to fight with them as a child soldier. When he surrendered in 2014 and ended up at the ICC, he was a murderous monster.
Victim and perpetrator at the same time, that was new for the Court. In February, after a process that took years, he was found guilty of 61 out of 70 counts for warcrimes and crimes against humanity, in the form of murder, torture, rape, slavery and the use of child soldiers. This Thursday he will hear his sentence.
The verdict in February was received in Northern Uganda with mixed feelings and criticism. Stephen Oola, director of the Ugandan think tank Amani Institute, spoke (link to your report) with civilians who welcomed the verdict, but the majority of the people interviewed expressed their disapproval. ‘The verdict is a judicial error by the ICC’, says Stephen Oola in a telephone interview. ‘The judges have lacked the comprehension to understand Ongwen’s case. This leads to bitter feelings, for victims and prosecutors, and not to reconciliation in Northern Uganda. The verdict is a bad precedent’. Stephen Oola has experienced the war himself. ‘I grew up during the war and as a small child I had to spend many nights in the bush for my security’. He did his mastered in peace studies and is lawyer and human rights activist. He leads the Amani (which means peace in Kiswahili) institute in Gulu.
‘Those who know the complexity of the LRA, understand the injustice in the verdict against Ongwen. I am referring to the 15,000 formerly abducted people who, just like Ongwen, have to come to terms with their past’. Ongwen, who became a senior commander in the LRA, said at this surrender: ‘I went into the bush deaf and blind, and that is how I am leaving the bush. I am now a reborn child, and cannot be held responsible for my mistakes. I am a fool’.
MOST MURDEROUS REBEL GROUP
The LRA is the most murderous African rebel group of the last half a century. At the moment, the group counts most likely only a few hundred fighters, who, after having been chased out of Uganda, have now found refuge in CAR and DR Congo. Nowhere at the continent is the question on how to handle victims and perpetrators as hotly debated as in Northern Uganda. Which legal system is capable of handling the suffering caused by this brutal and bizare war?
In 2005 the Court issued arrest warrants against the 5 figure heads of the LRA. Of those 5, LRA leader Joseph Kony is still at large. Three others were killed by him or died while fighting. Ongwen was the only one left. ‘It seems the ICC has made him a symbolic scapegoat for all the violence committed by the LRA’.
Ongwen’s sister Julanda described him as ‘a lovely boy’ in an interview with NRC in 2015. How can such a sweet boy commit such terrible crimes? Oola: ‘The question is whether this man was ever in charge of himself. It is as saying that a slave is committing slavery. Somebody is being abducted and thereafter at a young age indoctrinated, traumatized and tortured. Is it possible for him, at older age, to be in charge of his mental capabilities, while he finds himself still in the same terrorizing environment? In Northern Uganda people understand this dilemma very well, but the lawyers in far-away The Hague do not’.
COMPLEX SYSTEM OF SPIRITUALITY
The lawyers view the LRA wrongly as a conventual guerilla movement, according to Oola, with strong structures and a military command. ‘The LRA is something different, it is determined by a very complex system of spirituality and other convictions. This verdict has completely neglected these aspects.
Magical powers were the strongest weapon of the LRA. When Joseph Kony established the movement in 1988 he based it on a toxic mix of church rituals and tribal magic. Kony spoke in different tongues and the abducted children were his disciples. Oola: ‘The judges in the Hague cannot imagine such magic. But everybody who knows the LRA, whether a professor or a military, will not entirely dismiss his mystical powers. Kony convinced his subordinates that he possessed supernatural powers. The court should investigate how this magic has influenced Ongwen and what should be the consequences for a legal process’.
Do peace and justice collide, and punishment and reconciliation? Do the West and Africa have fundamentally different views about justice? According to Oola, a penal justice system is not the answer to the violence committed in Northern Uganda. He pleads for the use of traditional systems that put the reconciliation center stage, and not the punishment. ‘Many formerly abducted children have undergone these rituals, which made them confess and repent and pay compensation’.
Should Africa ask itself again the question which role the ICC can play at the continent? ‘It forces us to realize that the ICC cannot always be the answer. We have, in Northern Uganda, children that were born in captivity. They have never led a normal life, except a criminal life in the legal sense. This verdict is a blow to any hope for peace and justice’.